TV Guilt

Posted on Sep 30, 2011 in Featured, Parenting | 13 comments

Lately I’ve been feeling considerable guilt and (mostly external) pressure to reduce the number of hours my children spend in front of a screen. In general, our family tries to limit tv viewing and whenever it starts to creep up, both Aaron and I make efforts to reduce it. But there have been a couple of recent factors contributing to my feeling that we need to reduce my kids’ screen time:

  1. We enrolled Rain in our local Waldorf school. Waldorf schools discourage tv and computer use by kids.
  2. A recent study has come out that showed that children who viewed 9 minutes of Sponge Bob Squarepants showed difficulty concentrating on tasks immediately afterwards (compared with children who viewed the slower paced Caillou or who viewed no tv). There are some inherent problems with this study and I also have to say that I wasn’t at all surprised—I already agree that tv viewing isn’t the best use of my kids’ time and we’ve all heard variations of this before—but, it’s the topic du jour so it’s currently influencing friends, other parents, my husband to have more discussions about kids’ tv viewing.
  3. My daughter started having wicked temper tantrums when we would ask them to turn off video games or turn down a request to play.

Last week, I felt compelled to make some changes. We were letting the kids play selected video games online. They were allowed to visit CBC Preschool Games, Sesame Street and Treehouse. The games are educational so I had been feeling good about it. However, I tended to get lazy and let my 20 minute limit slip to an hour and more often than not the kids would end up watching video clips on Treehouse that I hadn’t supervised and where they were exposed to commercials. I was shocked when Rain started begging me to buy Charmin toilet paper and Bounty paper towels at the grocery store because they are 5 times more absorbent than the other brand or they disinfect better than a regular dish cloth. When Noa started having melt downs over the games, I knew they had to go.  In the last week since I made the decision that they could no longer play these online games there have been no more tantrums about media viewing.

However, I’m also a stay-at-home-parent to three kids, one of whom is a baby who has been waking hourly for the last three months. We have no family living near us and no babysitter. We don’t have in-laws taking the kids for the weekend. We don’t have help/support. Our friends all have babies of their own and I’m hesitant to ask them to take our three kids when they only have one. My older kids don’t nap so I can’t nap when the baby does. I’m exhausted and sleep-deprived and as I wrote last week, I’m starting to struggle with my temper, a lot.

So here’s my conundrum, as much as I would like my children to be watching less tv (perhaps none), it’s the only way I get a break at all. It’s the only sure fire way that my older two won’t start fighting right outside the bedroom door just as I’m getting the baby to sleep (meaning another hour of trying to get him down). It’s the only way that I can actually lay down and have a rest in the afternoon. It’s the only way that I can occasionally sit down and put my feet up, knit or write a blog post. Sometimes it’s the only way I can get the laundry or dishes done or dinner on the table before 6:30 or 7:00 pm.

Last week, I experimented with trying to get through the day without screen time for the kids and guess what I found out? I was stretched thinner and lost my temper more often. So I asked myself: what is more damaging to my kids, tv or me losing my shit? The answer was rather clear to me. I know there are people out there who will judge me for that, who will say that I’m just justifying my behaviour, who will say that there are other solutions to help me get the breaks that I need…and they may be right. But they don’t live at my house. My husband works and I’m home with the kids. We can’t afford childcare. I get up with a baby 8-10 times a night. So I get to make this decision.

That said, here are a few things that make me feel better about this decision:

  • My kids are rarely exposed to commercials because we don’t have an actual tv (we use netflix on our computer and movies that we own). Some of the complaints I’ve read about tv, talk quite specifically about the problems with commercials for kids under 8. I personally think that commercials are a problem for everyone and I’m glad that I’m not exposed to them either, but I’m particularly happy that my kids aren’t.
  • We are very picky about what our kids watch. We limit our kids exposure not just to violence, but also to anything overly scary or with evil villains. As an example, Sleeping Beauty is not allowed but Surf’s Up gets a thumbs up. We encourage shows that have learning opportunities like nature shows or Busy Town and we make sure the content is age appropriate. One of the problems with the study mentioned above was that the kids watching Sponge Bob were 4 years old and the show’s producers claim the intended audience is 6-11 year olds – it isn’t that surprising then that it negatively affected them.
  • We know what they are watching. We don’t just walk away and let them watch whatever they want. We choose together. I know what they are watching and in most cases have either previewed or spent time watching with them and we often discuss what they watch afterwards.
  • We limit how much they watch. My kids are 3 and 6 and they watch 1-2 hours a day. This feels like a lot to me but generally this means 1 movie and when it is over, we turn it off. We very rarely let them have marathon viewing sessions where they watch several things one after the other. We have observed our children get wired and cranky when this happens so we don’t do it.
  • We have set conditions under which they may watch. They have to be dressed (unless they are sick and we have declared pj day). They have to have eaten breakfast. And for me usually, I also limit all tv watching to the afternoon. None in the morning. None during meals (we eat together at the table) and usually none after dinner (except when we have a family movie night). I expect that they clean up toys before they can watch.
  • My kids still get a lot of time with me. The articles I linked to above also talk about tv as a problem in the context of kids being at school all day and then coming home and watching tv in the evening, mentioning that it’s better to do other things (board games, walks) and spend time together. Because Rain is in half day Kindergarten (4 days/week) and I am home with the kids, we still spend most of our day together.

I do wish that my kids didn’t watch tv every day and I’m quite certain that in the future we will reduce our kids’ screen time even more, but at the moment, this is the amount that is working for me and I’m ok with that. Yet, I still feel guilty and embarrassed about admitting how much they watch and I still feel like other parents will raise an eyebrow when they hear how much our kids watch.

How about you? How much screen time do your kids get? Are you ok with that or do wish you could make changes? Do you feel guilty or embarrassed about it?


  1. My son just turned one. I put on an hour or less of Sesame Street for him each day, although my husband likes to put on Yo Gabba Gabba. YGG irritates the shit out of me but in its defense, it does seem to promote dancing more than just sitting. I specifically do not allow Spongebob because of that study! I sort of feel like Gabba Gabba is similar in the way it is all over the place though. Sesame Street is so slow-paced and feels thoughtful. Not to mention it’s been around for 40 years and I consider it proven to be educational. 🙂

    I feel guilty about how much our TV is on in general, which is all the time. My son sleeps in bed with us and we even watch TV while he sleeps every night. But would he be better off sleeping in his own room? Or if we responded less quickly because we were downstairs? I don’t know. On the up side, we watch Neflix, so no commercials, and the tot doesn’t seem at all interested when “his” shows aren’t on. (He does like to clap and dance to the TV show intro music.) We also take a walk almost every day and do get out of the house. Obviously I’m rambling on because yes, I definitely feel guilty! But it’s good to think about it and I think that parents who don’t feel a little guilty are doing something wrong. 😉
    Janine @ Alternative Housewife´s last post ..Craft Date: Twig Candle Holder + Beaded Necklaces

    • That’s an interesting idea – that perhaps ALL parents feel a little guilty about tv at their house (except the ones who don’t watch any). I’m trying to get to the place where I feel ok about a certain amount of tv within reason. I mean, just because it CAN be negative doesn’t mean it always is. There can be positive things about tv too – or at least I think so. I’m sure my son’s Waldorf school doesn’t agree…but ultimately, I would just like to nix the guilt.

      I also like that you mention how often the tv is on in general, because that brings up our own modeling of screen time for our kids…and I definitely need to work on that. I tell them how much is too much but then I’m on it all the time so I definitely send mixed messages.

  2. I know exactly the guilt you are referring to, and I think our house rules are almost identical. Kieran watches one of a handful of shows (Dora – gag, Dinosaur Train – much better, Sesame Street clips on YouTube, and some educational videos that we’ve chosen; well, and sports), and never commercials (well, except for during sports, but we “pause” the TV so he’s not watching them).
    But he sounds just like your daughter – temper tantrums when it’s not TV time, etc.
    About a month and a half ago I got so fed up with TV that I banned it. We had an awesome month – and then we started several home improvement projects and I slipped. Now he’s back to whining for TV every day. (sigh) I feel like it’s a no win situation right now.
    Twitter: CodeNameMama

    • Isn’t it always the home improvement projects that start the slippage!?! I’ll cross my fingers that it doens’t get worse when the new baby makes an appearance…for me that’s been the huge kicker. How to put a baby down for a nap with a loose toddler roaming the house?

  3. The Waldorf schools will make you feel so much guiltier about TV watching, even when you are already controlling what your kids watch and just doing your best gosh-darn-it-all! A friend of mine with her step-daughter in Waldorf struggled with this. She basically agreed with the Waldorf principles but had a hard time putting them into practice 100% at home because she was so busy with a baby, then toddler and had other things going on as well, as we all do. I STILL feel guilty about the amount my kids watch and I have cut them back substantially. I think we all struggle with TV watching on our own varying levels of acceptance, but certainly when you are around other Waldorf parents, some of whom do come across as pretty much perfect in every crunchy way (in my book) it’s really easy to beat yourself up. Try not to. I think you’re doing great.
    Melodie´s last post ..10 Reasons I’m Happy To Home School This Year
    Twitter: bfmom

    • Yeah, yeah. I’m certainly not Waldorf material through and through.I’ll try to remember that you said that it’s ok that way!! 🙂

  4. When my daughter was 3 1/2 and my son was 3 months old, our TV died. We decided to see if we could make it 2 weeks without TV, and it ended up stretching to just over 2 years. For the first 6 months, my daughter didn’t realize that she could watch TV on the computer, and since we’ve never really done video games those were a non-issue. Once she realized that she could watch TV on the computer, I would let her watch one kids’ movie on non-daycare days, which meant that she had 4-5 hours of screen time each week.

    My daughter, like yours, had a lot of TV-related meltdowns. When our TV first died I found that it actually saved me time in the end, because the 20 or 30 minutes of TV was typically followed by screaming that lasted at least that long, and a good portion of the rest of the day was spent negotiating over TV viewing. Once it was out of the question, my kid found other things to do. Of course, with only one “big kid”, the “something” didn’t involve fist fights with her brother, which would almost surely happen now. But within a week she learned to entertain herself better without TV.

    Having said that, my kids DID start watching TV on the computer, and we’ve had a TV again for almost a year. We’re in a better place now, TV-wise, because we have established a strong routine and definitive limits around when TV happens, so we don’t have the fights and the tantrums. I’m OK with what they watch and how much they watch, and they seem OK with it, too. It’s working.

    Things aren’t all rosy, though. I have an iPhone. My son is 3 now and he loves to play Angry Birds. That is a constant battle, and there is much crying when I put the phone away where he can’t reach it. I’m beginning to suspect the issue isn’t so much TV, but 3-year-olds struggling with not getting their own way. It’s hard for them, I get it, but it’s not exactly fun for us, either.
    Amber´s last post ..A Canadian Family: Heritage and Identity
    Twitter: AmberStrocel

    • I agree that it does have a lot to do with personal autonomy for the 3 yo crowd but it’s amazing the power the tv has over them.

  5. Heck, yeah. Nix the guilt.
    Moms have too much guilt. And too little sleep.
    Too many expections. Too little support.

    Sure, in an ideal world, no TV. But if that happened, I’d require sedation of some other sort to maintain a modicum of sanity in my 4 child household.

    Your solution sounds reasonable. I also advocate periodic bans. Studies have shown that computers and TV change brains. People of all ages become addicted and feel they need that constant stimulation.

    When my kids get too antisocial and fight me on limits for electronics, I declare weeklong or monthlong bans. After a while they find something else to do. (Warning: sometimes the withdrawal period is a bit hellish.)

    Keep up the thoughtful, reflective parenting.
    You’re doing a good job. Try to let go of the guilt.
    Twitter: melaniemcintosh

  6. A friend of mine with her step-daughter in struggled with this. She basically agreed with the Waldorf principles but had a hard time putting them into practice 100% at home because she was so busy with a baby, then toddler and had other things going on as well, as we all do.
    Elaine Walker´s last post ..Construction Machinery

  7. I’m about the same as you. Your ideas sound like a good balance to me. x

  8. bonjour
    I just discover your blogsite (via tiny house blog) and would like to congratulate the way you’re doing.
    But (there is always a ‘but’ I apologize! ;o) I have one question, what is the place, the role of the father ? Of course he is working (like you!) but sometime i feel that I cant ear his voice about the rules the “law” with children and I imagine it’s quite hard for a mum to be the law, the cuddle, the cleaner and so one.
    I am a little bit “old fashion” (and french… I apologize for my kind of english!)and I think that the rule, the law can be the father’s job (not only him of course)
    It is not about “male power” but to share the job and for the children to know there is some rules, no way to grumble or more…
    “that it and this is the law of the west!”
    It’s not about the mum’s place but about father’s role; and I apologize if it’s not clear or too rude? Its not so easy to express in english what I want to say !
    ( and obviously its more easy to say than to do… specially because I’m single without children ! ;o)
    anyway thank a lot to share your experience

    • Lionel
      Yes, I think I understand your meaning – not to be chauvinist, but rather to point out that parenting in a family can and should be shared among both parents, and that there is a role for the father to play. Certainly, in reference to this post on TV, I’m speaking primarily as the mother who is at home during the day while my husband works outside the home. Further, you are right to point out that the father’s voice is absent in my writing. My husband is more mistrustful of technology and the internet than I am and as such, I respect his wish to not be present on the internet. I rarely post pictures of him or discuss him because I feel that he appreciates that privacy. This likely gives a mistaken impression of the level of involvement he has in his family. In fact, we approach parenting and running the home (and our family business) as members of a team, and he is very much involved as a father.

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